(USA TODAY) -- Arrests began early Thursday morning outside a busy McDonald's in New York City as thousands of emboldened fast-food workers coast to coast put down their burger flippers and picked up picket signs in a national strike that included civil disobedience as the workers rally for $15 minimum wages and the right to form a union without retaliation.
Strikers began to gather in more than 100 cities early Thursday, affecting major chains from McDonald's to Wendy's to Burger King. Shortly after 7 a.m. ET on Thursday, police reportedly arrested 19 workers who sat down in the street — and refused to move — outside the bustling McDonald's at New York's Times Square. There are unconfirmed reports of some striking fast-food worker arrests in Detroit, as well.
For workers, it's about pushing the major fast-food companies to meet their demands for $15-an-hour minimum wages and the right to form a union. For the fast food giants, it's about trying to keep costs — including labor costs — under control in a highly competitive market.
"There has to be civil disobedience because workers don't see any other way to get $15 an hour and a union," says Kendall Fells, organizing director of the organizing group Fast Food Forward, which is financially backed by the Service Employees International Union. "There's a long history of this, from the civil rights movement to the farm workers movement."
But the National Council of Chain Restaurants, an industry trade group, took issue with the protesters. "While it is common for labor unions to stage events in order to grab media attention, encouraging activities that put both restaurant workers and their customers in danger of physical harm is not only irresponsible, it's disturbing," said executive director Rob Green, in a statement. "Unions are calling it 'civil disobedience' when in reality, this choreographed activity is trespassing and it's illegal."
The key issue: wages. A number of fast-food workers make close to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, or roughly $15,000 annually. Some say that is not a living wage, especially for workers who are supporting families.
The strike comes just days after President Obama appeared to lend support to the so-called Fight for $15 movement at a Labor Day speech in Milwaukee. "All across the country right now, there's a national movement going on made up of fast-food workers organizing to life wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity," Obama said.
In a statement, McDonald's said, "We believe that any minimum wage increase should be implemented over time so that the impact on owners and small and medium-sized businesses — like the ones who own and operate the majority of our restaurants — is manageable."